Interim Carroll County Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he is "disappointed and disgusted" that a substitute teacher at Francis Scott Key High School is accused of having inappropriate sexual contact with eight male students, and he said he thinks the school system is not culpable.
"We'll look back and review it to see if there were any signs," Ecker told reporters yesterday morning at a news conference at the school system's administrative offices in Westminster. "We'll certainly take a look to see if we could have done anything to prevent this."
Police were busy running down new leads and separating facts from rumors yesterday as they continued their investigation into alleged misconduct and abuse by Kimberly L. Merson, 24, of Union Bridge.
"No additional [students] came forward, but we were able to develop additional information at the school," said Sgt. James DeWees, supervisor of the child abuse and sexual assault unit of the Maryland State Police Westminster barracks.
"We've had students come forward and assist with some other information but we still have several days of investigation on this. The other night was the tip of the iceberg for us," DeWees said, declining to elaborate.
While police investigators interviewed students, school officials tried to calm the surprise and anxiety that the news caused students and staff of Carroll's smallest high school.
Teachers and staff met before school yesterday to discuss how to address the situation and ensure a normal school day. Extra counselors assisted students seeking help. Homeroom teachers read a statement before classes began, informing students that the school system "is working in cooperation with the Maryland State Police to resolve this situation and determine the facts." A letter with the same message was sent home for Key parents.
"Our goal today is to provide you with a regular routine so that you may continue to learn in your classes," teachers told their homeroom students. "However, if you have concerns, or information, or wish to speak with someone regarding this situation, you may go to the guidance office to talk with your counselor or additional support personnel who are here today."
Merson was arrested early Saturday and told police that she had provided alcohol to the boys, ages 15 to 17, invited them to her home, stripped and danced for them, fondled them, had sexual intercourse with them and performed oral sex on them, according to court documents. Police said yesterday that some of the instances involved two or more boys at the same time.
Court documents allege that incidents occurred last winter at Merson's home, the home of two boys who are brothers, in Merson's car and in one student's car.
1993 Arundel incident
The case has prompted comparisons to a scandal in Anne Arundel County in 1993, when teacher Ronald W. Price admitted having sex with eight students during 21 years. Price, a social studies teacher who also coached soccer and softball and was a drama coordinator at Pasadena's Northeast High School, was convicted of having sex with three young women, two of whom had graduated before reporting the misconduct to police.
Price was the first of four Anne Arundel County teachers to be charged in 1993 with having sex with students but was the only one convicted. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison and died in January 1998 of lung cancer.
The notoriety of the case took a huge toll on the Anne Arundel school system.
It put Northeast High School through an emotional wringer, cast an unwelcome spotlight on the nation's 47th-largest school system and led to a state-ordered investigation into how county schools handled accusations that teachers had sexually abused students. The investigation brought other cases to light and led to the resignation of Superintendent C. Berry Carter III amid criticism that he had mishandled earlier accusations. The case also prompted an agreement between the Maryland State Department of Education and school systems statewide to teach school employees what to do if they suspect a student is being abused.
The new allegations turn that undesirable spotlight on Carroll and Key High, with about 1,100 students, tucked amid farmland outside Union Bridge.
"This is something that's new to a lot of us and it really affects the Francis Scott Key community, students and staff," Ecker said. "This is something we don't wish anyone to go through. This is really devastating."
Ecker said no information indicates that Merson's husband, Christopher, who is a special education teacher at Key, was involved or knew what was going on.
"He's a victim in this ... in my opinion," the schools chief said.
Merson was hired two years ago as a permanent substitute teacher, reporting to Key every day to fill in for any teacher absent that day. She was paid on an hourly basis and taught a range of subjects, from social studies and science to English and history, and also coached the cheerleading squad, school officials said.
Like all noncontract employees, Merson was required to read the school system's regulations on staff and student relationships and given a chance to ask questions about them. The rules prohibit inappropriate conduct or communication; sexual harassment; child abuse, sexual abuse and mental injury; and dating and sexual relations.
"The relationship between students and staff is to be one of a professional nature at all times," the regulations read. "Because school personnel have the responsibility for the supervision of children, teachers' and other staff's interactions with students should remain clearly within the confines of a professional staff/student relationship. In addition, teachers and other staff are role models in the school and community and are to be exemplars of appropriate behavior."
School officials said Merson would not be returning to the school.
Merson spent Saturday night in the Carroll County Detention Center but was released Sunday afternoon on $250,000 bond. Phone messages left at her home yesterday were not returned.
The families of five of the boys declined to comment, and the other three could not be reached yesterday.
If convicted, Merson could be sentenced to 15 years in prison on each of the 15 counts of child sexual abuse and lesser penalties for the five counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, one count of third-degree sexual offense, one count of perverted practice and one count of distribution of obscene material.